With his head and his face bearing equal amounts of stubble, Jim Carrey arrives at his production company's office. He has just shaved his skull for a new role, and dressed in a black suit and white shirt he looks like a happy, prosperous monk. But the name on the door -- Pit Bull Productions -- reveals far more about Carrey's true nature.
Born in Toronto, Carrey had an uneventful childhood as the son of an accountant and a homemaker -- until Dad lost his job and the family was left homeless and miserable. Carrey dropped out of school in 10th grade and worked at menial jobs to help out. He found better pay doing impressions on the stand-up comedy circuit. His harmless, permanently smiling persona translated to roles in such films as Peggy Sue Got Married and the short-lived TV series The Duck Factory.
The earlier hard times, however, had instilled anger and an edge in Carrey that eventually came out. Mindful that his father had been fired from a seemingly safe job, Carrey tossed out the mainstream act that had him opening for Rodney Dangerfield. He replaced it with a caustic, manic persona who went onstage without a set routine and punished his audience until it responded -- sometimes with laughter, sometimes with debris. Keenen Ivory Wayans saw the edge as a strong match for his envelope-pushing Fox sketch show In Living Color and made Carrey the lone white male cast member in 1990.
Carrey scored a surprise hit as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and followed that with The Mask in 1994, another blockbuster, which instantly drove his price from $500,000 to $7 million a film. When Robin Williams vacillated on playing the Riddler in Batman Forever, Carrey jumped into the green suit and had his first global hit. Next: a record $20 million to star in the 1996 film The Cable Guy.
Hardly content to be a rich guy who makes faces and talks out of his ass, Carrey rolled the dice again. His edgy Cable Guy villain darkened the film's tone enough to horrify studio execs (and audiences, who stayed away in droves). Still, the performance helped Carrey take a step toward serious films. In The Truman Show he played the unwitting star of a 24-hours-a-day reality TV show. Carrey then played quirky comic Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon.
The problem: Those serious turns seriously underperformed at the box office. In fact, 2001's The Majestic was enough of a bomb for people to start writing Carrey's career epitaph. The death notices were shelved when Carrey put on his funny hat again and delivered last year's top-grossing comedy, Bruce Almighty. What's an ambitious megastar to do? For Carrey the answer is to take the serious route yet again in his new film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a surreal drama about memory erasing that was written by Charlie Kaufman, architect of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.
Michael Fleming sat down with Carrey just as he began working on the role of Count Olaf, signature villain in the film Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, an adaptation of Daniel Handler's kid-book series. The twice-divorced (most recently from actress Lauren Holly), now single Carrey was clearly getting into character. He seemed tightly coiled, partly because he doesn't like doing interviews and partly because he had decided to explain certain aspects of his personal life that he'd never talked about before -- and he wasn't sure how his fans might react.
Playboy: You've been working around the clock on your new film, and you've just shaved your head. Are you feeling overwhelmed?
Carrey: Not today. I just came off the beach in Malibu, near my house. It was the most beautiful day, except for that inevitable paparazzi triangulation.
Playboy: Your Truman Show character has no privacy. Now, with the paparazzi following you, the same has happened to you.
Carrey: This country is getting us ready for The Truman Show. It's happening. I feel a little scared and sad. They're slowly desensitizing us to where there's a video camera on every street corner. Shows on TV are getting more like, "Ha! What a stupid guy, that Joe Schmo or whoever he is."
Playboy: The Truman Show seemed cautionary in 1998 but now seems prophetic. On The Joe Schmo Show everybody was an actor except the unaware contestant. Joe Millionaire's contestants were duped into falling in love with a phony millionaire.
Carrey: It's all unbelievably cruel. I believe in making fun of things that deserve to be made fun of--lies, arrogance. These are things you want to rip down as a comedian. But when you take a guy who's a good-hearted human and you just go "Woo, woo, woo" behind his head, it's cruel.
Playboy: Even though they gave him a hundred grand?
Carrey: A hundred grand means nothing. What are you buying-- his humiliation and misery? It feels as if we're just desensitizing people to the point where it will be all right to take a baby and do whatever you want with it. Or to kill somebody on camera.
Playboy: Meanwhile, celebrities get more and more coverage. How do you feel when you see an E! show consisting totally of people like yourself being stalked by the paparazzi?
Carrey: Unacceptable. Way over the edge, man. That channel is now eating its young.
Playboy: What do you say when they ask for an interview?
Carrey: I don't do it.
Playboy: What about the argument that it's the price of being rich and famous?
Carrey: I don't think that argument holds water. We should respect the people who entertain us and make us feel good--unless I'm acting like an idiot, which I'm not. I know they justify it in their heads, but it can't make them feel good. Unless they're drunk or stoned and completely fogging over their feelings, I know that in their private moments, when they're lying in bed staring at the ceiling, they can't feel good about it. Taking is taking and giving is giving. Period. There will be a reckoning in their lives.
Playboy: What do you mean?
Carrey: There will be some kind of unexplainable disease, something that happens in your life that makes you go, "Why me?" And I'm here to tell you, it's because of the choices you made.
Playboy: So you believe in karma?
Carrey: Absolutely, without a doubt. But this isn't karma; this is the truth eating you alive. You can justify things all you want, but every human being knows the truth. To follow someone around with your lens like a little sneak--it hurts your spirit on this planet.
Playboy: Do you feel this strongly because you see yourself as a victim?
Carrey: I just feel it as a human being. I'm always looking at myself. I'm in no way perfect, but I'm always challenging myself to try to be better--in what I eat and what I read. I've always thought that a higher level is possible, and I'm always looking for it.
Playboy: When you played a guy with a split personality in Me, Myself & Irene, advocacy groups complained that you belittled the mentally ill. Isn't everyone guilty of insensitivity, even you?
Carrey: I wasn't trying to be insensitive at all. To me it was like a cartoon. I don't want anybody to be hurt by what I do. If that in some way hurt somebody, I'd feel terrible. But it wasn't intentional. Maybe that's the difference: I was being funny.
Playboy: Do you understand the appeal of E! and other celebrity coverage?
Carrey: I'm not completely innocent here. I've indulged in it too. I watch those shows sometimes, but I know it's a disease. It's leading us down the wrong road, man.
Playboy: You've done more than watch these shows. Before Man on the Moon came out, the media reported that, in character as Andy Kaufman, you got into a fight with Andy's wrestling nemesis, Jerry Lawler. Wasn't that a calculated press stunt to boost awareness for a movie that needed visibility?
Carrey: I'm not really allowed to tell you what happened, so either way I'm screwed. I think an interesting byproduct was seeing how little had to happen to put the media into high gear-- helicopters flying over the building, top story across the country. I sat in a hotel room watching and said, "Andy lives."
Playboy: You talk about the entertainment media as if it were pornography.
Carrey: I don't know what my attitude toward porn is. I've studied a lot of Taoism. It talks about trying to find a higher place and not wasting your sexual essence, how these Chinese guys live to be 120 because they don't waste their essence. They might have sex, but they don't waste it all the time. I guess if you're going to squander your chi, the pages of Playboy are as good a place as any.